What's at Stake in Your Story?

As I've been working toward completion of a new romantic suspense, I've been thinking a lot about stakes. As I read through the manuscript, I ask myself not only what's at stake in this story, but what's at stake in each chapter and every scene. If my honest answer is "nothing much" or "it's just about character development" or "to illustrate the setting" (yawn), I go back and revise, sharpening the focus on the question that must be answered and what lies in the balance.

This week marks the release of my thirteenth novel, and though I'm still far, far away from having all the answers, one thing I can say for certain is that stakes count - sometimes more than any other factor - in a book's success. An easily-communicated, succinct "gut-punch" of a story germ (sometimes known as a high-concept story) can be used by the author in a query letter, by the editor when talking to the sales force and/or art director, by the publicist in designing ads or marketing efforts, by reviewers in writing copy, and by readers telling their friends about the great book they've just read. Though not every successful commercial book has this element, those which do very often prosper.

So today, think about the central concept of your own book and try to boil it down to a quick one to three sentences that get across the urgency and make many people, from agents to editors to readers, itch to pick it up and start reading. If you'd like to post the description here, I'd love to see them.

To get you started, here's an example (gleaned from my initial query letter) from my own new release, The Salt Maiden:

The Salt Maiden is the story of one woman's quest to save her missing sister in one of the most desolate corners of the country. With the life of a child hanging in
the balance and every second critical, Dana Vanover refuses to let anything stop her, from rattlesnakes to small town hostility to the desert-hot attraction to the sheriff determined to run her out of town.

Okay, now it's your turn!


Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks for that, Colleen. I needed that today.

And congratulations on the bouncing baby book!
Suzan Harden said…
Thanks, Colleen for your words of wisdom. I really think the best advice I've received is when you asked me who has the most to lose in a scene. It's helped my writing so much.
Thanks for this reminder. I needed to hear it today!

I also talk a lot about Worst Case Scenarios. I say, "What's the worst thing that could happen?" Then I write it!
Great article, Colleen!

I didn't have much of a pitch for my current story -- the title is Beauty and the Geek, and to me, that gets the point across. LOL
Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

Love the worst case scenario advice, Toni. I agree wholeheartedly. I often ask myself (rubbing my hands with evil glee)how could this possibly get worse?

And Sarah, in an ideal world, the title IS the high concept, or communicates the book's idea so well that it finds its target audience like a heat-seeking missile. Sounds as if you've come up with just such a title.
Christie Craig said…
Great post Colleen.

You really are a great teacher.

Thanks so much, Christie! Can't wait to read your new book!

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